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Harlem nights

An annotated map of the hippest, hottest nightspots in uptown jazz-age New York

Charlie McCann | January/February 2016

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If New York is the city that never sleeps, then this map shows you where it used to go to stay awake. It was published on January 18th 1933, in the first issue of Manhattan: A Weekly for Wakeful New Yorkers. In those days, Harlem was known by its jive-talking denizens as the “land o’ darkness”. It was a place that came alive at night, when jazz played hot and hepcats talked cool. Harlem “was the place for a Negro to be,” the singer Cab Calloway wrote in his memoir. “And no one knew it better than my friend, E. Simms Campbell” – the man behind this map.

Simms Campbell was the first African-American illustrator to have his work published by mass-market magazines; he drew for Playboy, had a cartoon in every issue of Esquire for almost 40 years and illustrated a young adult novel by Langston Hughes. At his peak, he produced 500 cartoons a year. Once, having compared drawing to ditch-digging, he said, “I do my sweating right over there – often at night, under those intense blue lights.”

This map was drawn in 1932 before Simms Campbell left Harlem for respectable Westchester County. He was still “that kid from hunger”, as a contemporary put it. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t having fun. “Like me”, writes Calloway, “he was a hard worker, a hard drinker and a high liver…When we got to know each other, we would go out at night to the Harlem after-hours joints like the Rhythm Club and just drink and talk and laugh and raise hell until the sun came up.”

This map is a guide to their night, an illustrated itinerary of the Harlem high-life. Begin at the Cotton Club, “one of the fastest stepping revues in NY”, where Calloway sang classics like “Minnie the Moocher” and bellowed out his signature party-shout, “Ho-de-hi-de-ho” (look at the effect on the lamppost). Simms Campbell couldn’t be there to holler back; the Cotton Club barred black patrons, even as it hired the best black entertainers. (Though even they couldn’t be too black: Louis Armstrong failed the colour test.)

On then, up Lenox Avenue to the Savoy Ballroom, the “house of happy feet”. Here, blacks mingled with whites on the 10,000 square-foot dance floor and the Chick Webb Orchestra egged them on in blisteringly fast dances like the lindy hop. An unfurled scroll of paper on the map reveals that this section of Harlem was rammed with clubs. “When there’s no room on the dance floor, they just stand still and shake – that’s the ‘bump’.”

Next to Gladys’ Clam House – if only to catch a glimpse of Gladys Bentley, a 400lb lesbian singer dressed in a tuxedo and top hat. She would preside over the piano, “tickling the ivories” while growling risqué lyrics to an adoring crowd. After that, to Club Hot-Cha, just under the Harlem Moon on West 134th and Seventh – though if you need directions, look elsewhere. This map’s relationship to the layout of Harlem is woozy at best – the most important measurement is a “shorty” of gin. As for the compass, well, with a drunken sot slumped on every needle, it looks more like a very-merry-go-round. On your way, sneak a toke from the Reefer Man’s marijuana cigarettes (“two for $25”). But be subtle about it: the officers in the “nice new police station” are probably too busy playing cards to care, but you never know. Then to the Log Cabin, for a nightcap and some blues. From whence you catch a whiff of an unmistakably greasy, succulent smell. Tillies is next door, its speciality fried chicken. You remember a phrase from “Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary”: “Would you like to collar some ready chicken at a dicty hash house in the land o’ darkness?” The answer to that is, “Yeah, man”. 

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